T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 3 MARCH 1994
This month: The Internet as a commons
A network support group for new teachers
Welcome to TNO 1(3).
This issue includes an uplifting article by Jonathan Grudin on
The Beginning Teachers Computer Network, a network set up to help
new graduates of the Harvard School of Education teacher training
program survive their first year of teaching. How can this fine
system serve as a model for others? Which features of it are
crucial? It's hard to say for sure, but it does involve people
who have known one another in person but who have scattered
geographically while still sharing stressful experiences in a
new activity without necessarily having adequate support systems.
What else is like this? New doctors from medical school? New
parents from birthing classes? Newly sober alcoholics from AA
meetings? People who have similar physical disabilities, newly
released from hospitals or physical therapy programs? Circles of
elderly friends newly dispersed to nursing homes? Perhaps all of
these groups could use electronic alumni associations.
Aside from Leslie Regan Shade's article on Canada, TNO 1(2) was
far too polemical. TNO 1(3) returns to the path of constructive
criticism with some reflections on the Internet as a commons.
Most Internet institutions are still remarkably open, in the
sense that anybody can join and anybody can send messages at any
time. Will this last? Will hordes of unacculturated beginners
overwhelm it? Will advertising overwhelm it? Will cumbersome
billing software overwhelm it? Will people start building walls
around their network communities? Maybe not -- if we understand
and apply some principles for the maintenance of a commons.
The Internet as a commons.
With the Internet growing exponentially, cultural emergencies are
breaking out. TNO 1(2) described one of these, the unfortunate
practice of teachers telling students to ask basic questions on
Internet discussion lists. There's also the fairly widespread
Internet traffic in digitized pornography, advertisements sent
unsolicited to individuals or discussion lists, high-bandwidth
video signals sent over long distances without full regard for
the consequences for folks along the way, and so forth.
Yet another is the following irritating dynamic:
* Someone wishes to subscribe to a given discussion list, so
they send a request directly to the list rather than to the list
maintainer (probably because nobody ever told them how).
* The request goes out to several hundred readers, a few of
whom mistakenly reply to it, and these replies also go out to the
* Whereupon several more readers send notes to the whole list
complaining about the previous messages.
* Whereupon several people wish to remove themselves from the
discussion list, but they don't know how, so they send messages
to the whole list.
* Whereupon several more readers send out-and-out flames
demanding that everyone else stop sending them meaningless
Many readers of TNO are no doubt aware of other such phenomena.
What can we do about these problems? One common response is to
promulgate rules or etiquette guidelines or "principles of user
responsibility" and so forth. In each case, the image is one of
restraining unfortunate behavior through written instructions,
which does not work very well.
But more effective responses exist. One of them, crucially
different from the rules and guidelines, is to write instructions
for the most effective ways of using the net to get things done,
including clear explanations of *why* these methods work best.
I've tried to write a couple of these things myself (see past
issues of TNO for details), and I hope that others will too. (No
doubt they have; if you know of any, please tell me.) In writing
these things, I was influenced both by how-to-get-ahead books
for business people and by books about the practice of democratic
organizing for political people. The point is to appeal both to
self-interest and to shared values, not to authority.
Here's the wonderful thing. Given how the net works, it happens
that the most effective ways of networking, getting help, finding
information, gathering people together, making friends, and so
forth are also the most socially responsible ways of doing these
things. Why is this? It's because of the network's tremendous
capacity for cultural self-regulation. The most obvious example
of this phenomenon is the suppression of anti-social advertising
methods. The net is full of people looking for business models
these days, and several books and newsletters promise to explain
how to advertise on the net. These people have caused much
worry among net inhabitants who envision receiving floods of junk
e-mail and the like. There are certainly things to worry about,
but in my view this isn't one of them. Internet folks have
already suppressed numerous outbreaks of anti-social advertising
through the simple method of flooding the offenders with flaming
complaints. While ill-tempered flaming has its own costs, the
basic method is an important one. Imagine if it were just as
easy to complain to the people who send you *paper* junk mail.
What the Internet needs, then, is not rules and guidelines but
a more fully functioning set of community standards. Although
laws are certainly necessary for many sorts of things, community
standards are better than laws because they are more flexible,
more situational, cheaper, less dependent on supposedly objective
authorities, and basically decentralized. Community standards
are the best way to regulate a commons. And that's what the
Internet is -- a commons. What does that mean? Well, we're
not talking about common ownership, since the Internet is owned
by all sorts of organizations. Rather, we're talking about a
certain social system within the Internet, which includes, for
example, the convention that discussion lists are open to all.
This could change. The Internet could fragment into a bunch of
separate spheres, each with its own gatekeeper. It won't happen
right away, since most of the people who run Internet discussion
lists and the like are still primarily interested in attracting
people, not keeping them away. Notice that many of the people
who run important Internet facilities, for example bibliographies
and Listserv lists, are based at relatively marginal institutions
-- the ones that we in the United States sometimes jokingly refer
to as "Southwestern East Kansas State" and the like. Those jokes
can be their own form of bigotry, but the phenomenon is real: the
net is providing people at the periphery of the global research
system with ways of building a community for themselves by
providing a useful public service. Let's hope it stays that way.
Garrett Hardin's classic paper "The Tragedy of the Commons" is
often quoted to demonstrate the impossibility of a real commons.
If everyone can graze their sheep on the commons, he points out,
then everyone has an interest in maximum grazing, thus ensuring
that the commons will be quickly worn out. Likewise with fishing
in the world's oceans; many fish stocks are in grave danger of
being fished out, and the fishing fleets of newly industrialized
countries often fail to see the wisdom of collective management
administered by institutions dominated by the very countries that
fished the stocks down to dangerous levels in the first place.
Is Internet bandwidth a commons, just like fish stocks? Market
economic theories tend to assume that it is, simply because some
people can profit by using more and more of it.
But, as Hardin points out, a commons *can* work if it has a
functioning system of community standards. In this context, of
course, a "system" is not a piece of hardware, nor is it a set
of written rules. Rather, it's a set of customs, together with
a form of social organization that ensures that everyone has an
interest in upholding those customs. When people's lives are
heavily intertwined, as in a small town, and when the society is
not too badly stratified, then reputation is an effective means
of restraining anti-social uses of the commons. Another system
is to place the commons under the management of respected elders,
a system that obviously has a delicate set of preconditions. At
bottom, maintenance of a commons always requires a holistic ethic
of care, which can retain the benefits of managing the commons
as a whole and avoid the disadvantages of chopping it up into
separate domains. To learn more about the history and customs of
the commons, read the following tremendous book, by the editors
of the British environmentalist journal The Ecologist:
The Ecologist, Whose Common Future?: Reclaiming the Commons,
Philadelphia: New Society Press, 1993. NSP's phone number is
+1 (215) 382 6543. You can order by phone, or by mail at 4527
Springfield Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19143. It's $14.95 plus
How should we maintain the commons of the Internet, so that
everyone can keep on benefitting from its openness? I don't have
all the answers, but here are some thoughts, in two groups: first
things that are more "social", then technical things.
* Complaints. When someone does something on the net that
seems anti-social, send them a note. I don't think it serves any
purpose to send people flaming hate-mail; after all, you might
change your mind once you learn more facts, and non-hardened
offenders are more likely to see reason if they're treated
reasonably. Also, it's good not to give such complaints a bad
name by being arbitrary or rude. If such complaints become a
widespread practice (as they already are for many purposes) then
they'll serve as an automatic referendum on marginal forms of
* Story-telling. Recount stories about net behavior. The
recent article by Julian Dibbell in in The Village Voice ("A
Rape in Cyberspace", 12/21/93) about some unsettling goings-on in
the Xerox PARC LambdaMOO system is a good example. Stories are
good ways to transmit values, to occasion debates about values,
and to provide models for understanding and responding to future
instances of questionable behavior. When disputes arise about
proper net use, and when community standards have to be invoked
to suppress unfortunate network behavior, it's important to tell
stories about the events, and to keep on telling the stories for
the benefit of others.
* Curriculum materials. Nowadays anyone can choose from among
a wide variety of texts about the technical aspects of using the
Internet. What students learning about networks need now, in my
view, is a textbook of the social aspects of network use. How
do you get things done on the net? Again, the point is not to
constrain users' activities with rules. Rather, the point is to
provide the methods that work -- methods that are consistent with
community standards, and that contribute to the atmosphere of
helpfulness that now prevails on the net.
* Network Watch. Let's imagine an organization called Network
Watch whose purpose is to bring unfortunate network practices on
the part of large organizations to the attention of the network
community. This could include simple things, like advertising
practices, but it could also include more sophisticated things,
such as the diversion of personal information to purposes other
than those for which it was collected. Obviously such a group
would have to be cautious and encourage debate about what is and
isn't legitimate network activity, and it should keep reminding
itself that its most important weapon is publicity, but it
should also call for e-mail campaigns, boycotts, and other forms
of pressure against particularly grievous or chronic offenders.
(See, for example, TNO 1(1)'s article on Internet action alerts.)
It could also serve as a contact point for people who have been
harmed by unfortunate network practices, or it could form an
alliance with publications such as the Privacy Journal that
already serve this purpose. The possibilities for such campaigns
are unlimited. A great deal of inspiration can be gotten from
labor unions' "corporate campaigns", which pressure organizations
to conform to community standards in pay and working conditions
by mapping out the full range of the organization's connections
in the world (directors, customers, suppliers, bankers, etc)
and applying pressure on the ones that seem vulnerable to public
criticism. The great virtue of such campaigns is that, more or
less, they don't work unless the community decides that the cause
is just. (For more info on corporate campaigns, see issue #21 of
Labor Research Review, which is available for $8 plus $1 s&h from
the Midwest Center for Labor Research, 3411 West Diversey Avenue
Suite 10, Chicago IL 60647, USA, phone +1 (312) 278-5418.)
* Interface. Many unfortunate social dynamics have their
ultimate causes in bad interfaces that mislead users -- with the
common result that the users make mistakes by trying to use new
systems by analogy to systems they already know. We know a lot
about designing good interfaces by now, so we should do it. In
particular, it's quite important to watch some new users trying
to use the system, and to encourage new users to write about
their experiences, since the long-timers have usually forgotten
what the hard parts are.
* Concrete instructions. The worst set of net-user instructions
I've ever seen are for an elaborate system of discussion groups
and archives for people doing research in a field that shall
remain nameless. The instructions are detailed, but they are
basically useless to anybody except experts because they are full
of abstractions like "issue a "send" command", where the meaning
of "issue an xxx command" is explained somewhere else, in a
way that itself presupposes that you know about ten other such
* FAQs. Many folks on the net maintain lists of frequently
asked questions (FAQs). Unfortunately, in my experience you
usually have to be a world-class neuromancer to actually *find*
these things. New net users should be directed to relevant FAQs
through as many mechanisms as possible, including absolutely
detailed and concrete directions, if possible down to the precise
keystrokes, for how to retrieve and read them. In particular,
someone who subscribes to a discussion group should automatically
receive such instructions, along with a clear explanation of what
a FAQ is. (Most new users don't know what F.A.Q. stands for!)
* Bounce-mail. Bounce-mail refers to the messages you get back
when your e-mail doesn't get through. Since I run a mailing
list, I get lots of bounce-mail and it's all terrible, full of
extremely obscure and arbitrary codes, with the crumbs of useful
information so badly formatted that it takes moderate experts
like me several tries to find it. And, of course, every mailer
has its own completely unique format. Imagine how intimidating
such messages are to beginners. Can someone please write an RFP
for bounce-mail formats? Can we please generate error messages
that are written in whole sentences, formatted into whole
paragraphs, with extra paragraphs explaining the basic idea in
case the recipient is a beginner? One of these paragraphs should
say: If you wish to report this problem to someone, please send
along this whole bounce-mail message, because otherwise it will
be impossible to figure out what really happened.
* Collective memory. FAQ's are a kind of collective memory.
We need tools to support the collection of many other kinds of
collective memory as well. One possible tool would be a matcher
that takes a user's question and compares it to *all* of the
questions in *all* of the FAQ's on the net. Maybe this wouldn't
work, given that each FAQ tends to presuppose a certain context
(e.g., that you're using a certain program or speaking the
language of a certain discipline, etc), but it's worth a try.
* Better tools for maintainers. A lot of problems would be
solved if it were easier for mailing list maintainers to screen
the messages that are sent out to them. Such tools do exist, and
some maintainers do use them, and claims of censorship do arise,
for example when people insist on thinking out loud by sending
large numbers of long messages to a list. But these issues are
going to come up, and if we have flexible tools then we can try
different solutions to them. The important thing is to share our
experience, not keep it locked up in a particular person's head
or a particular systems department.
The Beginning Teachers Computer Network.
University of California, Irvine
Information and Computer Science Department
"The network is one of the most wonderful things a school can
give to its students."
The students, in this case, were not really students, they were
former students: graduates of the Harvard School of Education
teacher training program. I spent an hour on the phone with a
seventh grade teacher in Augusta Georgia, the result of a chance
conversation with her mother.
50% to 60% of new teachers leave their profession within 5
years, she said. To find out why and to see what could be done
about it, several years ago Harvard set up the BTCN or Teachers
Network. For $25, a graduate can rent a computer and modem for
a year. The system comes set up, with an 800 dial-in line and
hotline help. The documentation is primarily education on "email
etiquette" -- actions and feelings to expect on a network.
The graduates have been through an intense twelve months of
training. "We get very close in the program and are then hurled
off into the cruel world. The first year of teaching is awful,
it's very very hard. It was the worst year I've ever had, the
hardest thing I've ever done. It's brutal. It's hard. You
never sleep, you're grading all the time, you're planning all the
time, you're crying all the time."
She estimated that 60 of a class of around 100 took the offer
and joined the network. Some "forums" are devoted to specific
disciplines: Humanities, Math & Science, Foreign Languages.
Others are topics: Classroom Management, Evaluation. In an
Introduction forum new participants are guided in trying out the
technology together. "Soapbox" is a general forum. Some Harvard
faculty participate in the lightly facilitated forums, which are
also studied for research purposes (a consent form is part of
the rental agreement). "Private forums" (person-to-person email)
are unmonitored. (Recently they upgraded the system and added a
"Chat Line" for synchronous communication. She is unsure the new
features warrant the increased complexity, though.)
"It was really lifesaving for me, it kept me grounded when I
needed it, helped me see what things are mountains, what are
molehills. It's a time when you are feeling panicky about
the world, worried about the future of society and children.
Classmates really understand things so well. We could help each
other in a wonderful way, not naive yet still excited."
Questions were often specific. "'I'd like to stress writing, but
the class is 35 kids, it seems too big... Should I teach Julius
Caesar or Macbeth?'" Sometimes, though, "It was like reading
an education journal" in a positive sense, "where theory and
practice meet up."
Some classmates who had not found teaching jobs got on the
Teachers Network but inevitably stopped participating. To her
surprise, arrogant classmates she "couldn't stand" in school were
likable and helpful on the network, all struggling with similar
"It allowed me to see the longer range. With intense, miserable
experiences every day there is a tendency to say 'forget it.'"
Students encourage each other or just "vent." Discussing
differences in the methods encountered in different schools
enabled her to see that some problems she faced in her all-white
private school were not universal. After a year she moved to
an inner-city magnet school, where she says she is much happier.
("I wouldn't say Augusta has an inner city, but that's what they
Her year of computer rental up, she bought a computer to stay on
the network but finds herself participating less in the forums,
which remain focused on first-year problems raised by the newly
graduated class. (This year for the first time current students
at Harvard can monitor and (rarely) participate.) She mostly
uses private forums (email) to a few friends who also stayed on.
It seemed a very special set of circumstances so I asked her
uncertainly whether she sees any other uses for networks of
this sort. She was ready. "Parents! Of kids in the same age
group. I'm thinking of starting a newsletter for them. Parents
of middle school kids see their kids turn into monsters and
don't know what to do. It's a monstrous age, difficult to
live through. Seventh grade is the height of monsterness."
She laughed. "Parents need to be told "you were a monster when
you were 13 and your children's children will be monsters when
She sees many opportunities. "Networks for parents of infants.
For people starting new businesses..."
This month's recommendations.
Alessandro Duranti and Charles Goodwin, eds, Rethinking Context:
Language as an Interactive Phenomenon, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1992. A tremendously intelligent collection
of articles about the phenomenon of "context" in language. The
idea, roughly, is that "context" isn't just a sort of cloud that
hangs around and determines or changes the meanings of words.
Rather, context is something that people are *doing* through the
ways they interact with one another.
Philip Lesly, Overcoming Opposition: A Survival Manual
for Executives, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall,
1984. A belligerently reactionary defense of established
authority against campaigns of activists, including some rather
sophisticated counter-tactics. He advocates propagating a steady
stream of "facts" that make things seem complicated, since people
will be quiescent if the picture isn't clear. He also suggests
supporting groups that favor the organization's own goals. As
one might expect, he grossly caricatures and oversimplifies the
activists' positions (not that all anti-corporate activists think
clearly, of course). It's not clear whether he really believes
these things -- his big example throughout is infant formula in
the Third World -- or whether it's just good strategy to position
activists' views as oversimplified caricatures etc. The book
is eminently quotable throughout and is clearly addressed to
business executives who feel the need for an ego boost after all
the attacks on their legitimacy.
One impassioned reader of TNO 1(2) actually called me a Communist
sympathizer. Given that the rhetoric of political repression
is coming back at full strength, it would probably behoove me to
point out that I am a life-long opponent of Communism. My core
value, and the core value of TNO, is democracy. Conservatives in
the US are increasingly open about their opposition to democracy.
One manifestation of this is the increasingly frequent practice
of coining metaphors that compare democratic liberalism with
the Soviet Union, thus insinuating that liberals are basically
Communists. For example, conservative Republican strategists
have recently taken to referring to Bill Clinton's health-care
proposal as "liberalism's Afghanistan", the over-reaching
invasion that demonstrates the regime's underlying weaknesses
and helps bring it crashing to the ground. Many of them also
like to portray democracy as "two wolves and a sheep voting",
when the more common picture, of course, involves one wolf and
Heaven knows that democracy in my own country is pretty messed
up at the moment, but that's why I'm writing TNO. My view is
that democracy is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon, a
set of skills for actively getting together to run the collective
life of the community while respecting individual dignity.
These skills include getting help, communicating across cultural
boundaries, networking, organizing things, and so forth. None
of these skills is innate. All must be learned, and all are in
danger of disappearing when people are manipulated into passivity
in the name of some supposedly higher good. We can use networks
to alleviate this danger -- and to help reverse the damage that
has already been done -- by sharing our experiences, information,
strength, and good will, and TNO is my own small contribution to
this larger project.
Due to popular demand, the article on TNO 1(2) entitled
"The art of getting help" is now available as a separate file.
You would be most welcome to post it to your favorite discussion
group, to beginners on the net, or to people who teach courses
that involve Internet-based research.
Phil Agre, editor email@example.com
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles +1 (310) 825-7154
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520 FAX 206-4460
Copyright 1994 by the editor. You may forward this issue of The
Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
purpose. Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.
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